Canadian artist Cathy Busby was drawn to Union Theological Seminary's collection of 63 portraits when she arrived in New York City in January 2012 as the first full-time artist-in-residence at the Institute for Art, Religion, and Social Justice. She discovered that the ensemble of mostly white and male past presidents and funders represented within the collection did not match in the institution's longtime commitment to diversity and social justice. For About Face: Portraits at Union Theological Seminary, Busby photographed, catalogued, and eventually removed thirteen of the portraits from Union's vaulted, neo-gothic Refectory. The artist then replaced them with monochromatic wall painting of their silhouettes to create a new artwork that, according to the Institute's co-director A. A. Bronson, eschews "the expected story of important men" for a new one of institutional "disruptions, upsets, and omissions." About Face is on display through 26 May. The accompanying publication is available on-site and at New York City's Printed Matter.
Gavin Browning: Why focus on the seminary's portraits, now?
Cathy Busby: In my work, I often assemble collections of like things in order to look critically at the tensions that compose an organization or a discourse. When I saw the portraits as a visitor to the seminary, they seemed like a leftover from a bygone era. Some were in poor condition or hanging a little askew. How had they come to be this way? Were there more in the institution's holdings? Who had painted them and how they had come to be here? I wondered about their lives as paintings, and I imagined each portrait had a story.
This institution carries remnants of the past century of life in its bones, on its floors and walls, and in the condition of its portraits. I'm interested in these lived conditions.
You've said that one intention of About Face is to reposition the collection both physically and discursively. Does the project also reposition the space?
The Refectory feels more contemporary and open to possibility, which is in keeping with the ethos at Union. It has a long been home to progressive thinking and action. This project was done in conjunction with the seminary's 175th anniversary. It honors that past while proposing what the next 175 years could look like.
About Face contains only traces of portraits, but the accompanying publication meticulously reproduces and catalogues them. Why make them visible in this ancillary way?
Catalogues in the art world have long been a way of validating an art object. So I'm using the publishing tradition to give these semi-forgotten objects a new life.
The book is an important signifier within the seminary — subjects hold one in many of the portraits — but rather than leading to increased spiritual enlightenment, this artist's book leads to greater understanding of institutional culture and history through its material objects.
In your 2011 project Steve's Vinyl, you arranged, displayed, and sold your late brother Steve's collection of 200 records at a one-night, participatory event to celebrate his life and raise funds for the AIDS Coalition of Nova Scotia. Does About Face also encourage participation?
Steve's Vinyl was a visceral, exciting, fast-moving, low-level spectacle party project. It was also about a collection and about memory.
About Face invites a different kind of participation in asking the viewer to re-imagine the space of the Refectory and to take the time to read the book. There's a lot of information in it. To really get the project, people need to see the installation and read the book. My ideal visitor would come to the show, sit at one of the dining tables in the Refectory, and read the book cover-to-cover.
What does Union offer that a gallery or museum space does not?
Union doesn't have the protocol or expectations of a gallery or museum. There was a permissiveness to let me do what I wanted to do.
I'm pleased with the economy of the work. Because the portraits will cover the silhouettes when they go back up, it's a permanent installation. If Union wants the show again, they can remove the paintings. In a gallery or museum, they would be painted over.
What has been the reaction to your work at Union? From theologians? From artists?
People at Union have said things like "It's a relief not to have those faces looking down." In fact, they weren't looking down, but that's how people felt since the portraits were hung quite high up. One professor was concerned that taking down the portraits was taking away history, and that it is important to remember that as much as it likes to think of itself as racially diverse, this is a white institution.
Artists see a new space for contemporary art. They see possibility in an institutional space that has been transformed from traditional and static to one that is much more flexible.
Through 26 May
About Face: Portraits at Union Theological Seminary
The Refectory, Union Theological Seminary
Broadway at 121st Street, New York